Additionally, rightwing and centrist politicians in Colombia have also slowly and somewhat quietly passed reform after reform that benefited capital and the rich, including 4 tax reforms under former president Uribe and 4 under Juan Manuel Santos. The recent tax reform was just the latest attempt to further erode the constitutional rights of ordinary Colombians. Iván Duque had tried a few tax reforms on his own, including one that was stricken down by the Constitutional Court. Perhaps the most striking difference between this tax reform, and the many other neoliberal policies that his administration and previous ones have put forward, is that it threatened to affect a much broader sector within Colombian society, including urban populations and Colombia’s white/mestizo middle and lower-middle classes. If passed, it would have been a democratization of the economic and legal precarity that indigenous and Black communities experience every day.
Historically, the US has played an outsized role in Colombia’s internal affairs and in the dynamics of the armed conflict. Colombia continues to be the largest recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America, and the largest outside of the Middle East. In 2020, Congress appropriated over $460 million in foreign aid, with most of the funds being directed towards “peace and security,” which includes providing training and equipment to security forces. With this in mind, it is not an overstatement to say that US taxpayer dollars are being used to repress social protests in Colombia.
Yet, so far, and in contrast with the United Nations and the European Union, which have accused Colombian security forces of using brutal tactics, the response from the Biden administration has been muffled. According to Juan González, the National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere, “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.” Doesn’t the undeniable bloodshed, some of which has been captured by cell phone videos, merit a critique? Biden himself has yet to speak out publicly against the Colombian state’s use of violence against its citizens and rampant violations of human rights, including against ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House and the Senate, including Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Jim McGovern, Ilhan Omar, and Jessica Ramos (who is Colombian-American), have expressed support for the demands of protesters and called for an end to police repression.
For better or for worse, the dependence of the Colombian state’s on US assistance means that the Biden administration has more political leverage on Duque than any other nation or international body—a reminder of the US’s imperial influence in Colombia and in other parts of the region. His administration should condemn and demand an end to the violent tactics of the state security forces against protestors; pressure the government to enter into serious and open dialogue with the organizers of the national strike and with the young people leading the manifestations on the streets; and toinvestigate and hold accountable those responsible for the murders, torture and disappearances of activists.
Though important, the gravity of the situation requires more than a strongly worded statement. Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress should consider withholding or suspending foreign assistance to Colombia as some US politicians have already suggested. McGovern has called for instituting conditions on US aid that ends up in the hands of the National Police and to the anti-riot police (ESMAD), responsible for many of the human rights violations during the strike. Last year McGovern and Ocasio Cortez proposed amendments to the 2020 military budget requiring that Colombian authorities report on allegations of abuses by the military and putting an end to the use of aerial fumigations to eradicate coca crops. Although this US-backed coca eradication strategy was halted by Colombian courts in 2017 due to its nefarious impact on public health, Duque’s government has been trying to restart the program.
The Duque administration has demonstrated its disregard for democratic institutions, the right to protest, and the right to life. He has made it clear that he and his administration are morally bankrupt and not interested in peace. Biden and the US Congress needs to:
- Demilitarize all foreign aid to Colombia
- Make all outgoing foreign assistance conditional on implementing the Peace Accords, particularly its Ethnic Chapter, which is typically sidelined from policy conversation in Colombia and abroad.
- Make racial justice a priority of US foreign policy to Latin America. Debates and negotiations about peace-building, development, and foreign aid between the US and Colombia need to happen with the direct participation of Black and indigenous authorities and organizations with first-hand knowledge of the realities on the ground, their needs and solutions. One such organization is the Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights that is fighting for the full implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of the 2016 Peace Accords.
Even in the face of brutal repression, Colombians continue to be mobilized and are continuing to risk their lives on streets throughout the country. We invite those observing these atrocities to look a little deeper, both in terms of historical context and the layers of injustices, and to the complicity of the US government. The racialized political violence and repression that Black and indigenous communities experience are often ignored or altogether silenced in both national and international media. The coverage on the latest National Strike is no exception. We invite US-based journalists and content producers to report and write about Colombia in ways that are attentive to these complex dynamics. We also urge you all to take seriously the lives, and premature deaths, of Black and indigenous people who are at the forefront of progressive struggles for inclusion and social justice in Colombia. Black and indigenous activists often say “nosotros hemos puesto los muertos”, or “we are the ones who have put forth the most dead bodies,” as a way of underscoring the incommensurate violence these communities experience in this never ending war.
We must believe them.